The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part two: Lawrence

St Peter’s Church, Burnley (Briercliffe Society)

This is the second in a series about the fall of a long-distanct ancestor of mine, Lawrence Britcliffe. The first part, outlining how we know what we know about him, is here.

Old and new religion

It’s Boxing Day, 1701, and all over the world, everyday life goes on. Jacobite fears rumbled away on the continent as the Old Pretender has recently proclaimed himself the rightful king; Jethro Tull is travelling around explaining the efficiency of his newly-invented seed drill; and John and Mary Brearcliffe stood at the door of the ancient church of St Peter in Burnley to baptise their firstborn son.

Stood at a bend in the River Brun, the St Peter’s of 300 years ago did not overlook a busy central bypass as it does today, or ranks of gridiron mill-town terraces it did 150 years ago., but was the parish church of a middling Lancashire market town. As John and Mary walked through the churchyard they would have passed the gravestones of many of their kinsmen, both recent (John’s brother Lawrence (1672-1699) and sister Grace (1675-1699) were both buried here just two years earlier, as were his venerable grandfather Lawrence (1605-1699)) and older (great-grandparents Robert, (1555-1617) and Alice (d.1602), for instance). It’s possible that the link went back much further – there have been Briercliffes in Burnley since at least the 12th century.

Both John and Mary were baptised here themselves, back in the days of Charles II; perhaps as teenagers they listened when the bells rung for William of Orange’s assumption of the throne in 1688. Both would have become quite used to the spread of non-conformist religion throughout the North-West following William’s assent to the Toleration Act of 1689, an Act which allowed David Crosley, among others, the opportunity to go around preaching. According to the Burnley Express history I mentioned last week, it’s likely that John and Mary were non-conformists themselves, Baptists even, so were only at St Peter’s on sufferance or out of respect for family tradition. (Perhaps not the former? Both John’s parents and his two eldest siblings were dead by this stage, after all, so who was left to impress?).

The Briercliffes of Burwains

Whatever the case for John and Mary, young Lawrence was baptised in the church of his forefathers. At some point, every genealogist comes up against a wall of “ag labs” – generations of rural workers with no standing or say in the community. This was not the case with the Briercliffes, who were yeomen farmers with a lengthy history. The Briercliffe family home, Burwains, an ancient property rebuilt in 1642 by Lawrence Sr, passed to John’s elder brother Lawrence, and thence to his son, also Lawrence (1692-1741). But John was not badly off, being the holder at various times of various pieces of property. It’s a risky business using antiquarian stories like those in the Express, and there’s certainly an element of local colour in the write up of Lawrence’s life. Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly-researched history based on deeds saved and copied by local dignitary Christopher Towneley, for which the manuscripts still exist, and it’s due to Towneley and Ernest Axon, the author of the Express piece, that the Briercliffes can be traced so far back.

Lawrence Britcliffe.jpg
A simplified family tree of Lawrence’s family. I’ve highlighted my own paternal line in bold, and left off a number of extra siblings – for instance, Lawrence was one of six children and William Brearcliffe (1710-1774) also had eight children. I’ve noted most of them as Brearcliffe, but you could just as accurately call them all Britcliffe or Briercliffe.

The records come from property deeds and manorial records, and show that John was known at times as John of Runcklehurst or Hecklehurst; of Red Lees; and of Dyneley. He was left this property as part of his grandfather’s legacy along with a smaller property in Burnley and fulling mill (perhaps another post on this another day). It’s impossible to be certain, but there’s a house formerly known as Red Lees on the old Burnley-Todmorden Road (now Peter Smith & Son haulage) that it’s nice to imagine might have been Lawrence’s childhood home.

Wherever it really was, Lawrence’s was a comfortable childhood, not one of ag-lab grind. He might have played in the woods at Ormerod House with the children there (one of my ancestors married an Ormerod, was it the same family?), dipped for sticklebacks in the Brun, wondered at the straightness of the Long Causeway and Gorple Road (now thought to be Roman) or hiked up to his cousins house at Burwains over Hameldon Moor, past Worsthorne and the ancient stone circle. His wouldn’t have been a life of chores – in his funeral sermon, David Crosley refers in passing to household servants (p.57). Lawrence’s father John was a farmer, and very likely a sheep farmer – this was the most common form of farming in the area given the difficulty of arable farming on the high moors and steep sides of the Brun valley, and the wool probably provided his fulling mill. Lawrence would no doubt have been on the hills with him in that case. I’m lucky in some respects that as a farmer’s son I didn’t have much to do with actual farming before Dad gave it up, but that’s not the case usually: witness the wonderful documentary Addicted To Sheep for a modern story of children in sheep farming. Lawrence would have known all these hills, ranged across them with staff and dog, known the views across Burnley to Pendle Hill (that fated hill again), known where not to tread when the snow was high, known the shady cloughs to rest when the sun was up.

Lawrence the youth

Life went on. National events came and went for many in the farming community, although infamy came close to home when Richard Towneley, part of the Catholic family of the nearby Towneley Hall, was tried as a Jacobite for joining the 1715 rising – that Old Pretender again. As Lawrence grew up though, he was instead a regular visitor to the Particular Baptists chapel in Bacup built for David Crosley. His parents took him to hear the big man from a child, I would guess, and soon Lawrence was just as keen to hike over the ridge to Rossendale. This is where Crosley’s own account of Lawrence’s life begins as well:

…first of all ’tis well known, that at his first setting forth he was a hopeful young man; beyond many; and promised great things, as to his being of some considerable eminence in religion; for zeal and a proficiency in knowledge and the practice of several Christian duties, he exceeded many of his companions; in reading frequent; and fervent in promoting Christian converse, and in carrying on private meetings for prayer and for improvement of gifts; wherein his abilities are said not to have been despicable
Crosley, p.54

Crosley was clearly impressed, and perhaps harboured ambitions that Britcliffe could be something of an apprentice; certainly a blessing to the church in Bacup. Crosley’s description shows the strong emphasis on growing knowledge, learning through debate, reading and meeting, that characterises many forms of non-comformist Christianity. Not for this sort of Christian the life of Thomas Dunham Whitaker from the previous post, who was vicar of Heysham but reportedly barely showed his face. Religion for Crosley and Britcliffe was a vital part of ones own being, the driving force in all their thoughts and actions. A personal religion, but with a very intense community of its own: in their epilogue to Crosley’s sermon (p.119), Britcliffe’s friends Henry Winterbottom, Henry Butterworth and Benjamin Heap recall whole nights spent in prayer together in the “lower barn” (perhaps at Red Lees).


St Mary & All Saints, Whalley (from their website)

For Crosley, the beginning of Lawrence’s downfall was his marriage to Mary Whittaker (possibly Whitworth) at Saint Mary and All Saints, Whalley, on 13th August 1719. This is an ancient and important parish church and I would hazard that the Whittakers were probably a well-established Anglican family. How Lawrence and Mary met or fell in love I have no idea, but I do like to think it was a marriage of love rather than political – given the views of Crosley about who it’s a good idea to marry, I think it’s unlikely that staunch dissenters like John and Mary Brearcliffe would have forced this through. That’s not to say Crosley was an ogre, laying down the law about who should marry who; but I can say with experience that the stronger the particularity of religious practice, even today, the stronger the encouragement to marry within that sphere of practice. Crosley puts it more politely, that:

…not taking due care (which I fear is the fault of many) to marry one in humour, and education, like himself, it proved, as many think, much to his disadvantage in religious matters.
Crosley, p.54

I think matters of class or respectability are not on Crosley’s mind here; “education” is perhaps a red herring, I think he’s speaking very much in the religious context. Rather, he considers it for the good of ones own religious conscience to marry someone who is of similar Christian understanding, lest tensions arise. Crosley finds a useful case study in Britcliffe to allude to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, who were instructed to carry on in marriages to their heathen partners, to win them around; but notes what a pity it is that two Christians of different persuasions couldn’t live together without acrimony.

Mary gets a fairly bad rap here. She died a widow in 1753, but my guess is she wasn’t in attendance at the funeral in Bacup, otherwise there may have been uncomfortable scenes indeed. It would be easy to read in Crosley’s sermon the same sort of misogyny that Paul is regularly accused of. But I think that gender, like class, is not on Crosley’s mind here. The problem lies with both Mary and Lawrence. For her part, it seems that Mary the Anglican began to ridicule Lawrence’s non-conformist faith, to contradict and harass him. Lawrence, for his part, did not have the steadfast character Crosley had imagined to bear such things, and gave in too readily. Whatever the truth of the matter, the constant marital disputations evidently affected Lawrence, and he eventually turned to “diverting his over burdened mind” somewhere other than church. I ought to mention here – because Crosley certainly wouldn’t have – that intense religious practice comes with psychological strains of its own. Lawrence wouldn’t have been the first or the last to buckle under the pressures of strict non-conformist Christianity, but really it seems to have been the full combination of religious pressures, marital disagreements and a fragile temperament that were the undoing of Lawrence.

Lawrence’s troubles 

Burwains House (Briercliffe Society)

Other troubles sat just on the horizon. As Lawrence and Mary were celebrating the birth of their third child, Annie, in 1725 (after Mary in 1721 and John in 1723), Lawrence’s father John was beginning the process of surrendering property in which the Briercliffes had had a hand for generations. In that same year, John is listed as a feofee at Burwains. The house passed from eldest to eldest of course, and by 1725 was occupied by Robert Brearcliffe (1692-1741), John’s nephew. The first, and only, Briercliffe to ever be recorded as ‘gentleman’, Robert was a disaster as a property owner. The property rolls show many surrenders of property as he paid off his various debts, but these were never sufficient: Robert died in the debtor’s gaol at Lancaster Castle in 1741. My guess is that the many surrenders in John’s record are also to do with Robert’s profligacy, those family obligations weighing heavily upon a family on the verge of a nobility that was now rapidly slipping away. I’m sure that Lawrence, fraught as he already was, saw this as just another burden on his shoulders.

His solution, as Crosley outlines, was to take up with “hunters, shooters and other merry companions, which presently drew him to the ale houses.” I think you can trace the roots of later condemnations of pub company and environment of in Crosley’s language (but probably Mark Hailwood’s book can tell you much more on this). Essentially, Lawrence turned to drink. As his head became “filled with strong liquor and his mouth with oaths, idle songs or obscene and filthy discourse,” his “zeal for religion abated” and he was no longer found in church but at the pub; no longer staying up all night debating scripture and praying, but staying up to drink and carouse. It was a “ready, tho’ dangerous way of relief” from the worries that assailed him, and my suspicions about the effects on mental health of strict religion are aroused again:

When at any time he was a little sober, and solitary, his conscience grew full of guilt, and his heart of fears, and terrors…
Oh, the deep sighs, and heart-renting groans, that at such times he was heard to abound with. What restless and wearisome nights did he often undergo as his mother has told me?
Crosley, p.58, 60

Lawrence found relief from his mental fragilities in “horrid swearing, drunkenness, whoredom and quarrelsome behaviour” (p.60). It’s no wonder to Crosley that once on this path he sunk deeper and deeper, his family was broken, his own, poorly-managed debts mounted so that his property had to be sold off. Such is the inevitability of sin. What Crosley does here is clever and engaging preaching. Lawrence’s story has, I think, genuinely broken his heart. Perhaps it was his own experiences with (alleged) drunkenness and immorality that led to his expulsion from London, that enabled him to outline Lawrence’s fall with such compassion. He doesn’t blame Lawrence or his wife outright; they are sad stories, to warn and persuade others to stay on the straight and narrow. He’s taking his 4,000 listeners right down to the depths, warning them on the way, before bringing them back up (as we shall see). But we haven’t hit quite the depths of Lawrence’s life just yet…


The triumph of sovereign grace or a brand pluckt out of the fire : being the substance of a funeral discourse, preached at Bacop, May 23. 1742. … on occasion of the death of Lau. Britliffe, … who was executed at Lancaster, … By David Crosly, minister. by Crosley, David (1670-1744), published in Manchester; printed by R. Whitworth, 1743. Online at Gale.

6 thoughts on “The good death of Lawrence Britcliffe, part two: Lawrence

  1. My mother’s maiden name was Britliffe. I’m interested in why in your blog posts you refer to Lawrence Britcliffe when the reading to which you refer gives the name as Laurence Britliffe (different spelling of his forename and surname without the ‘c’).

    As you will know researching this family name is difficult because of the various spellings. I am interested in whether you have evidence of the correct spelling (at the time).

    Thank you


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